JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Guardians (Director: Xavier Beauvois) - September 17, 2018
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The Guardians

Les gardiennes

4.5 4.5
138 min.

The singing orphan

With innumerable films chronicling the death, destruction and rampant deceit of World War I, this production takes a fascinating view of those in rural France—far away from the misery of the trenches—where it falls to the women, youth and too-old-to-fight habitants to till the soil, harvest the crops and get them to market.

Beginning in 1915, following a horrific tableau of death on the front lines, director Xavier Beauvois (penning the screenplay with Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau based on the novel by Ernest Pérochon) utilizes an—at times—achingly slow pace along with extra-sparse dialogue to expertly weave the narrative into an organic whole that will leave thoughtful viewers with much to contemplate for months to come.

Essentially, this is a tale of two women. The matriarch of the farm, facing an upcoming harvest with nowhere near enough hands, is forced to seek the assistance of an employment agency. With no other options, a barely 20-year-old woman is hired sight unseen.

It is hard to imagine anyone better than Nathalie Baye (cross reference below) playing the role of Hortense Sandrial, who has three family members guarding her freedom while she attempts to guard the land and keep the food chain flowing. Tough as nails guiding the plow behind a pair of oxen, she also runs the accounts, does her share of threshing and—key to everything—guards her children from the ravages/surprises of such an unexpected life. Baye’s visage reveals volumes more than any words from her mouth could say. Faced with several major crises, her reactions are soundlessly clear.

The new hire to the farm is the wonderfully redheaded, orphaned Francine, whose first act is to place a crucifix on the wall of her modest quarters. Just as the early line “After the war it will be different”, quietly sets the stage for the drama to come, the all alone young woman’s faith will be tested like never before. Playing this pivotal part, Beauvois has most certainly lucked out in having relative newcomer Iris Bry step before the camera. Like the film itself, she steadily builds her character until fully taking stage in the closing sequence that has been most carefully and marvellously prepared by the artistic trust (not least of which is the stellar cinematography from Caroline Champetier, who captures both women with long shots and close-ups that are readily at one with their incredible journeys). The songs she sings at key moments—not a great voice, but full of honesty and sense of line—are the artistic icing on this narrative’s cake.

The original score from veteran Michel Legrand is yet another coup. The numerous uses of a beautifully robust, soaring flute complement the visuals to excellent effect.

The men (notably Cyril Descours as love-flustered/frustrated Georges and Olivier Rabourdin as semi-rebel, Clovis (“They {Germans] are just like us”) are more or less merely props to the unfolding tale of the fairer sex with their backs to the wall (economically and emotionally).

Not surprisingly, and almost happily, the closing song, “Love is Fragile”, ideally sums up the proceedings with the sage advice that Happiness is a vain dream, even as the chanteuse has a radiant smile upon her face. JWR

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Director - Xavier Beauvois
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